It was billed as Vladimir Putin's final "live dialogue" with Russians as Kremlin leader.
For three hours Thursday, a relaxed-looking and – as usual – exceptionally well-briefed Mr. Putin fielded 68 of about 2.5 million questions that poured into his Kremlin office via the Internet, text messages, and live TV feeds, on subjects ranging from skyrocketing food prices to Russia's military buildup and the need to attract more people to live in Siberia's wide-open spaces.
He didn't look or sound like a politician putting the finishing touches to his legacy as he prepares to head into retirement in a few months. In an unrelentingly upbeat, magisterial performance, he stressed his personal, ongoing engagement in economic planning, social policy, and negotiations with foreign leaders. But one subject Putin had surprisingly little to say about was his own future plans, although Moscow political analysts have been discussing little else for weeks. He pledged, as he has in the past, that he will leave office following presidential polls next March and that "another person will be here, in the Kremlin, in 2008."
Earlier this month, Putin astonished observers by announcing that he will run for parliament in December elections, as the head of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and perhaps be open to taking the prime minister's job after stepping down as president.
He said nothing about that Thursday, but some experts believe the marathon press conference was part of his effort to consolidate personal power as he prepares to alter his formal job description.
"A president getting ready to leave his post shouldn't be engaging in an election campaign," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent liberal deputy of the State Duma. "Putin is aiming to remain the most popular politician in the country, and that will add fresh legitimacy" for whatever step he chooses to take next, he says.
"The Putin era is ending, long live the Putin era," says Irina Khakamada, a leading liberal politician who ran against Putin in the 2004 elections. "Power is already in the hands of one person, and the problem being solved now is how to guarantee the succession of the regime."
Format was like a US YouTube debate
The format of the show, utilized by Putin five times previously, was something like a US YouTube presidential debate, except that there was only one participant and the questions were carefully screened – some say stage-managed – by Kremlin-friendly journalists. As on previous occasions, the emphasis was on Putin as a hands-on problem solver who understands the big picture but also sweats the little details.
One woman, who lives on an island near the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, complained of unreliable ferry service. She was informed by a smiling Putin that at least one bridge will soon be built to connect her island with the mainland. A group of ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan were told that Moscow is doing everything to protect their rights and improve relations with its neighbors. A retired officer in the Volga region, worried about arrears in military pensions, learned that Putin will slash through the "bureaucratic obstacles" and ensure the money is all paid out by year-end.
"There was nothing spontaneous in this at all," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies the Kremlin elite. "Everything was planned, and all the answers were written by speechwriters beforehand. The people who asked questions were chosen, and the questions were all prepared."
Highlighting his achievements
Putin's nearly eight years in power have seen an extraordinary economic rebound. Russia has moved from 22nd place among world economies in 1999 to 11th in 2006, while average monthly salaries have leaped from $65 eight years ago to $540 at present. Inflation is rising and could hit 8.5 percent this year, Putin admitted, with prices for food and energy spiking up to 40 percent.
Putin's public approval rating is currently about 80 percent. A survey by the independent Public Opinion Foundation found that backing for the United Russia party ballooned to more than 50 percent after Putin threw his hat into the parliamentary ring two weeks ago.
Despite the hours of public dialogue, Putin's personal endgame appears no clearer. Most experts believe that Putin will carve out a future that preserves his central role in Russia, though no one is sure quite how he will go about it.
"The chain of power Putin has created cannot exist without him at the top," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in World Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal. "This power is based not on the office of Russian president, but on the personal charisma and authority of Vladimir Putin."
He might easily shift that power to a new job, without tinkering with Russia's 1993 Constitution. "Over eight years, Putin has not made a single change in the Constitution, and yet we are living today in a totally different country," Mr. Lukyanov adds.